Arin Arbus directs Theater for a New Audience’s production of King Lear with a clear focus on the play, and the work necessary. The result seems effortless, as she teases out moments of joy and sorrow, despair and frustration. In a season that is chock-full of King Lear productions, TFANA breaks open the play to see its complexity, instead of piling extra metaphor and aesthetics on top.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set uses big slabs of patinated copper for the floor and backdrop, as if this once luminous place has become a little sullied, a little worn beyond use. The forward-slanting scenery looks precarious, imminent of future disaster that will come crashing down at any moment. Marcus Doshi’s sparse lighting scheme becomes dramatic in the storm, raging with stark flashes, complemented by Michael Attias and Nicholas Pope’s booming soundscape. The lack of props and the complete surrounding experience brings us closer to Lear’s mental state, and gives his anguish physical expression. He is forced to see himself in all of his frailty and humanity.
Susan Hilferty fashions a military sensibility for the men and women: structured jackets of felted wool with prim rows of buttons, high collars, and stiff shoes. Lear himself is dressed in a sumptuous royal purple coat with a full fur collar, a sign of his power but also the costume robe of a king. The uncomfortable clothing reflects a cold and brittle culture in Lear’s kingdom, as well as the performance aspect of his court. As his health and purpose unravels, Lear’s clothing becomes looser, more forgiving—a strong departure from his powerful, structured image previously.
Every appearance in Lear’s court is a veneered presentation for his benefit. His daughters and sons-in-law, courtiers and soldiers line up on stage as if children in formation, waiting for their teacher’s gold star. His entrance signals the start of the court-play, and the posturing of his loving, dutiful daughters begins. A tall stool serves as a podium, not only casting the audience as courtiers and subjects of Lear, but also as the witnesses of this hoop-jumping performance. Goneril and Regan step up, obliging their king and father. Except that Cordelia forgets her part, has ruined the whole play. Lear turns from the director, the distributor of power, into the child who rules with a temper tantrum.
As the court quickly unravels, the stool serves as a bridge between performative gestures: one public for the whole court to see, the other conspiracy designed to bring us into a villain’s confidence. Edmund (Chandler Williams) imbues a casual confidence into his soliloquy, making the familiar text fresh and energetic. This makes the audience all the more partnered implicitly in his sinister plans. As his machinations take hold and grow, Williams becomes even giddy with his success, and that swaggering arrogance paves the road for his downfall.
Edgar (Jacob Fishel) plays the guileless brother perfectly to Edmund’s schemes. As the sylvan philosopher and mad man Poor Tom, Fishel breaks down big passages of text with ease and animation, and he regains his righteous strength as he moves closer to the final confrontation with Williams. But as Edgar journeys through the darkness to the light, his father sees his errors only in hindsight. Gloucester (Christopher McCann) is bespectacled and scholarly, bordering on nerdy with a nasal inflection and nervous hands. His determination to do the right thing is admirable and unparalleled and completely misplaced in such a play. Our collective heart cracks every time his good intentions are blackened by others’ cruelty.
As Goneril, the oldest of Lear’s daughters, Rachel Pickup appears cold and withholding, hiding her passion just below the surface. Bianca Amato’s Regan is more effusive, but she clings tightly to her bitterness from middle child neglect. It is often hard to choose which sister is more wretched, but Pickup and Amato seem evenly matched. As Pickup pushes herself on Oswald (Mark Dold) then Edmund under Albany’s (Graham Winton) trusting watch, we see Regan and Cornwall (Saxon Palmer) pushed beyond their own limits for power and violence. In the tortuous eye-gouging, the couple is both reviled by their own brutality and grimly determined to finish.
Lilly Englert is well matched to play Cordelia, tender but resolute and unwavering. It’s easy to see why Lear lashes out at her—he has never seen someone truly care for him instead of his power. When she is captured by the undeserving victors, Englert returns to a child-like innocence. Lear sees they are both freed from performing social rituals and rejoices in the face of their imprisonment. Lear also gains joy from his Fool, but their friendship is more akin to familiarity than true companionship or wisdom. Jake Horowitz as the Fool is complete with coxcomb cap, hand accordion, and clubfoot. He is quick and witty and compassionate from a distance, and some of his lines fly by so quickly they don’t have time to land.
Michael Pennington as Lear battles himself, trying to be both king and man. Pennington knows the truth, that two men can’t exist in one person, and we see Pennington gradually giving ground to his daughters, who swell with the power that they leech. He pleads for a moment of play-acting: just a few knights in his retinue, just one daughter who will care for him, just one moment of rest from his descent. We see the gradual despair and humbling experience of a king becoming a man, in pain and in madness. If you can stand to watch a man break, Pennington breaks him beautifully.
Overall, director Arin Arbus puts the emphasis in this production on performance, not on elaborate dressings and aesthetics. We are focused on the journeys that unfurl in front of us, the mistakes made, the tragedies set in motion.